Federal Government Improves, But Still Trails Private Sector
The University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) has released its latest report on the federal government. This past October, just days before the 2008 election, we covered its findings regarding customer satisfaction with e-government. Both indicated increases in satisfaction, though the federal government, which does not factor e-Gov into its results, remains lower than its online counterpart (73.9), rising 1.6 percent to earn 68.9 points on a 100-point scale. (The federal government reports on satisfaction surveys from consumers who have interacted with the government through all channels-physical, phone, or online-which are distinct from surveys tailored specifically for the e-Gov reports.)
"It's clearly up, which is kind of nice in the environment we have today," says Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI. It was a "nice surprise," he says. "You would think that government is also feeling the [effects] of unemployment.... So far, that's not showing up in their ability to handle customer interactions," he says, though not without noting that these were third quarter results. While the gap is closing a bit, the federal government continues to lag far behind the private sector, which currently scores 75.0 on the national ACSI.
According to the report, the top five departments are, in descending order are:
- Department of Interior (78);
- Department of Defense (75);
- Department of Health and Human Services (74);
- Social Security Administration (71); and
- Department of State (70).
In contrast to the private sector, what consumers are really looking for from the federal government is information and efficiency rather than customer service. "It's different [from the private sector]," Fornell says. "You contact the government, you have some question or issue and if you're directed to the right source of information, [and] get that information very quickly, it doesn't matter what the quality of service is around that."
The most significant jump in customer satisfaction was the 16 percent uplift to 57 points for the Department of Homeland Security. Despite the increase, the score itself points to a low base and compared to other departments, is still considered "dismal," Fornell says. He postulates that the reasons for its poor customer satisfaction are likely related to the fact that the department itself is a "mish-mash" of various departments that lack a central headquarter, all brought together under one roof without a targeted purpose. Moreover, Fornell notes that a recent industry survey focused on personnel management in governmental departments ranked 36 agencies and Homeland Securities was last or near last in every category. "Their job satisfaction is among the lowest in the government...so no wonder consumers aren't responding well either."
Earlier this month, President-elect Barack Obama appointed Tom Daschle, former senator of South Dakota, as Secretary of Health and Human Services to lead the nationwide campaign to solicit the views of American citizens regarding national healthcare. This effort to engage the public on policies could certainly help to increase customer satisfaction in the future. As of now, Fornell says, the results have yet to indicate any significant changes based on the results of the election, primarily because the data was collected in the third quarter. Nevertheless, he adds, "a lot of people have great hope for the new administration, especially because we have such difficult economic times."
A new measure in this report focused on consumer trust. "We thought it would be interesting to figure out why is it that overall trust [in the government] is so incredibly low...[but] specific trust and specific satisfaction is a lot higher." In the private sector, he compares, high satisfaction usually goes hand-in-hand with high trust. The federal government faces a challenge between individual opinion and public opinion in that, once an individual interacts with a product or service, satisfaction si often much higher. Given that, the government can increase its interaction with the individual as a method of regaining that trust.
Despite the increase in overall satisfaction, Fornell remarks that this may be the best the vertical will see for a while. "I don't see how it can get better in this climate," he says. But all hope is not lost. At this point, the government's best bet is to push forth with electronic channels, he says, it has the opportunity to delight consumers by providing easy access to information. Improvements toward better customer facing initiatives are certainly taking effect. Today, Fornell and his team will be presenting their findings in Washington, D.C., and the annual meeting, he says, increasingly elicits a large turnout of people from various departments, full of questions. "From that perspective, at least, you get the impression they're taking this seriously," he says.
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